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Batwoman isn’t quite ready to take on the “queer, feminist superhero” mantle

Photo: Elizabeth Morris (The CW)

Much like their eponymous superheroes, The CW’s Arrowverse shows have developed distinctive personalities while staking out individual territories (Star City, National City, Central City, etc.). Arrow is the brooding older sibling who might be getting too old for this shit, while The Flash is like a quippy younger brother with something to prove (early on, anyway). As the first woman-led series in the lineup, Supergirl wears its feminist bona fides on its sleeve (pants, too). Legends Of Tomorrow is just bonkers, playing fast and loose with timelines, politicians, and literary icons. Black Lightning introduced a family of Black superheroes to network television while operating mostly on its own (until several characters cross over as part of Crisis On Infinite Earths later this year).

And there’s still plenty of room for new heroes to carve out a niche in that landscape—or so Batwoman, which premiered October 6 on The CW, hopes to prove. The series, which stars Ruby Rose as Kate Kane, is the first lesbian-led one in this interconnected lineup (though animated, CW Seed’s The Ray was the first to center on a gay superhero), a development that feels perfectly in line with the Arrowverse’s inclusive storytelling. This is a comics-inspired world that has already yielded a nuanced and compelling bisexual character (Arrow’s Sara Lance) as well as the TV’s first trans superhero (Supergirl’s Nia Nal), while certain blockbuster film franchises rely on some dubious firsts. Batwoman executive producers Greg Berlanti and Sara Shecter and showrunner Caroline Dries aren’t straining for the sake of representation, either—Kate’s backstory, including an ill-fated romance with a fellow female West Point cadet, comes straight (ahem) from Greg Rucka’s Batwoman: Elegy.

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Ruby Rose and Camrus Johnson
Photo: Kimberley French (The CW)

The series arrives with both the canon and audience for a queer-centered take on alter egos and heroic deeds, but with a vision that, early on, doesn’t make the most of them. Behind the scenes, during a set visit here in Chicago in late August, the cast of Batwoman was fairly bursting with LGBTQ+ boosterism, with everyone from Dougray Scott (who plays Kate’s father Jacob Kane, co-founder of The Crows, an elite security force in Gotham) to Meagan Tandy (who plays Sophie Moore, Kate’s ex and Jacob’s protégé) touting the qualifier-laden ground that’s being broken. “First lesbian superhero to lead her own series” isn’t as succinct a soundbite as “TV’s first lesbian superhero,” but it is accurate, and therefore unlikely to earn any more criticism from fans who have seen Black Lightning and know that have seen Thunder (Anissa Williams) beat Batwoman to the punch. It’s a talking point that everyone seems to have memorized—minus Rose, who became unavailable for interviews after scheduling changes pushed the Chicago River-adjacent shoot late into the night, though the openly gay actor did discuss this first at the 2019 TCA summer press tour in early August.

The way the cast—including Nicole Kang, Camrus Johnson, and Elizabeth Anweis—embraced Kate’s queerness is only slightly more enthusiastic than the way their characters do. Although a flashback in the pilot shows how Kate and Sophie were driven apart years ago by a DADT-like policy, no one in Batwoman really clutches their pearls over Kate’s sexual orientation. As Kate, Rose is pretty matter-of-fact about it herself, from her soft butch presentation to flirting with women she rescues while on duty as Batwoman (though she’s yet to call herself that on the show). The producers have teased romantic storylines for Kate in season one, so she’s not gay in promotional materials only. Her stepmother Catherine (Anweis) is a little cold but not homophobic, and Kate’s stepsister Mary Hamilton (Kang) urges her to get out and date when she returns to Gotham after a long absence. Well, first, Kate must save Sophie from Alice (Rachel Skarsten), a Lewis Carroll-quoting villain who quickly becomes the yin to Kate’s yang, according to Dries. That hostage situation supersedes any meaningful explanation for Kate’s absence, which begins to look more like exile the longer the show goes on. Jacob’s decision to send Kate away seems just as driven by concern as disappointment, but whether either has anything to do with his daughter’s sexuality is unclear.

Photo: Kimberley French (The CW)
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In a phone interview in early September, I asked Dries to break down the essence of the first season. She described it as “a story about a girl who’s super-comfortable with who she is as an out lesbian, who suddenly finds herself wearing a mask and hiding in the shadows. And she wonders how she can reconcile that inner conflict of being so comfortable being out and so uncomfortable being essentially closeted.” It is a fine line to walk, and a metaphor that doesn’t get nearly as much development early on as it should. Kate does seem incredibly comfortable in every aspect of her life, except around her family, which is why I wanted to get Rose’s thoughts on the closeted metaphor, and whether it played into her performance at all. Unfortunately, Rose is in the middle of filming the big Arrowverse crossover, among other things, and was unable to respond to my emailed questions before the time of this publishing.

But Dries hinted at the ways in which Jacob and Kate’s relationship, which has been altered considerably for the show, will be much more deeply explored. The showrunner, formerly of Smallville and The Vampire Diaries, told me that establishing fraught family dynamics is precisely why she signed on to Batwoman: “What I love about genre shows is that you can take those soapy, family drama-type stories and arc them over 22 episodes, because you have the story engine for sort of this heightened reality.” But Dries also says this isn’t your typical family feud; Jacob’s switch from ally in Kate’s crimefighting to sworn opponent of vigilantes was “mostly inspired by who I wanted [him] to represent… as cheesy as it sounds, I wanted him to be the literal incarnation of the patriarchy, to show what women go up against when they’re just trying to get from point A to B.” That paternalism isn’t limited to his daughter, either. Dougray Scott, who plays Jacob, recognizes his character’s arrogance: “He’s a big fan of his own ability” who has made plenty of morally questionable choices in establishing what’s basically a separate and better trained security force for the rich.

Dries says that security force, the Crows, represents both patriarchy and authoritarianism on the show: “When I was developing it, I just felt this need for a different version of authority in the city. And I feel like what’s going on in the world is this—at least in our country—there’s this almost fascist state that’s happening. Greg [Berlanti] and I were kind of referencing South Africa while we were developing it, but this idea that you can hire your own sort of private security guard and you can put a wall around your house and walk around on the street with a guy with a machine gun who’s protecting you.” She stresses that Jacob has “really good intentions” for implementing a secondary police force (one that, in an inadvertently relevant touch, operates with no real oversight) after he finds the first one lacking, which doesn’t sound like a far cry from what first motivated Batman—and now Batwoman—to don a cowl. It’s part and parcel with the question that almost every avenging alter ego has asked themselves: at what point did (or do) you become the bad guy, the very thing you’ve been fighting against?

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For Kate, this question comes down to a choice, where both options see her follow in someone else’s footsteps: join the Crows and become like her father, or suit up and become the Batman, i.e., her cousin Bruce Wayne. Kate’s goal, like that of the larger series, is to create a new hero from some well-established lore, a nuance that was deemed missing from early Batwoman promos. But just how the show intends to do that isn’t entirely evident from the first two episodes, the second of which is set to air on October 13. Even after getting some help from Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson) in tailoring the Batsuit, Rose’s Batwoman still looks stuck in someone else’s mold. There are flashes of humor in her performance, but Rose relies a little too much on glowering in the style of Oliver Queen. As for grounding the more heightened moments in a story about fighting against the patriarchy, having so many women in the cast is a good place to start, especially because they all have their own methods—and motives—for bringing some stability to Gotham in Batman’s absence. But the many telegraphed beats, like the true nature of Alice and Kate’s relationship, threaten to undermine what thoughtfulness there is in the writing. Like the closeted metaphor, the patriarchal or neo-fascist symbolism is underconceived for the moment; the cast members who were on set that day in August were split on whether the Crows’ services are only available to Gotham’s wealthy, or if they, like the city’s right-minded citizens, are looking to be Batman’s replacement for the entire population. In trying to engineer a queer, feminist superhero show, Batwoman struggles to live up to either mantle.

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